The Beheading of John the Baptist feels like not only a result of the Baroque era but a representation of it. While many beautiful pieces of art were created during the period, Caravaggio seems to see the world from the common’s eyes. In the painting, John was brutally pinned down and had his neck open sliced like as if he were an animal. One man overlooking the execution while the other seems focused on the task with mild disinterest. An old woman cries for John while those not involved in the execution only look on with mild curiosity as if this was no unheard of or uncommon. The prison they are in looks dark and gritty, but somehow not unclean. It looks like what a prison of the era should look like; everything seems mundane and average about the entire seen. It does not look like a massive turning point in the bible about a relatively important character. It looks like John could be anyone, on any given day, being beheaded for any crime.
After the end of the Renaissance, the politics of Europe takes a darker path. The Catholic Church starts to loss its influence and the continent seems to breakout in war over faith and power. The rise of the merchant class changes the dynamics of how people see themselves while the proliferation of the Bible allowed many to question the Catholic Church’s interpretation of the Bible. Protestant and Puritans agenda of expanding their interpretation of the Bible worked in stride with many Royals to throw off the constraints of the Catholic Church. The Thirty Year war was the culmination of this power struggle but created that dark and murky world that Caravaggio works in: the purity of the Catholic Church is questioned and the nations of Europe are fragmented and in disarray.
The decline in the power of the Catholic Church left it looking to reinvent its image and a way to reach its main audience, the common people. The Council of Trent was formed in 1545 to it held sessions until 1563 to help reinvent the way the Catholic Church appeared to and reached the commoner. They realized that the complexity of the works during the end of the Renaissance and the Mannerism period created a gap between the people and the church; the artwork was intended for the educated and rich, not the average person. While the Puritans and Protestants rallied against the creation of art in representation of God’s word (along with abuse of power and corruption), the Counsel realized that the use of the artwork could draw people back to the church and help them see the connection in the stories of the Bible since illiteracy was common. Moreover, the artwork needed to connect in an emotional level with their audience.
This meant bring the revered down the level of the commoner; down into the practical, the faded, the dingy and human world. It meant taking the art into a world where pain was real, hardships were commonplace, and tragedy was usually unnoticed and background noise. Here is where Michelangelo Caravaggio comes into play. While The Beheading of John the Baptism seems to culminate all this influences, all of his other works capture either one aspect of this or another. In his works, the people and things fade, rot, and decay. The holy figures are mingled with the world around them and feel flawed and burdened by their sins, much like the people he was trying to connect to. Many times, Caravaggio took his subjects from the seedier parts of his world. In The Calling of St. Matthew, Jesus finds Matthew in a bar with gamblers, drunks, and thieves.
With this more comprehensive understanding of the era, The Beheading of John the Baptist seems to capture the era best for me. John is much like the Catholic Church; dragged down from its elevated status on the desires of Royals in positions of power. The executioners carrying out this harsh punishment could be the Protestants and the Puritans completing their perceived duty to spread and protect the word of God against the tampering of the Catholic Church. Even the commoners could be interpreted as being in the painting, looking on from a distance. They seem curious but ultimately incapable of doing anything one way or another; just watch. The old woman could represent a commoner or even someone with higher social status, realizing that the execution is wrong but also unable to do anything about it but watch in horror. While the power changed hands throughout Europe, the world seem to take more dramatic and darker tone in the lives of not just the Royalty and elite, but the average person as well.
Mayor, A. Hyatt. “The Art of the Counter Reformation.” The Metropolitan Museum of Art Bulletin 4.4 (1945): 101-05. JSTOR. Web. 22 June 2015. http://www.jstor.org/stable/3257265.
“Thirty Years’ War.” History.com. A&E Networks, 2009. Web. 22 June 2015. http://www.history.com/topics/thirty-years-war.